Firefox 3.5 and Snowl

With a spare second at the lab the other day, I was poking around the internet on one of the computers in the lab. Hitting up Google News, as I am accustomed to doing, I noticed under the “Science and Technology” heading that just the day previous (which would have been June 30th) Firefox 3.5 had been released! Yay! I do love a good release of my favorite browser from Mozilla, and 3.5 has been in the pipes for quite some time.

The release promised to be a speed boost for a browser that has historically been… well, not slow, perhaps ‘thorough’ is a better word. Firefox always takes forever to boot, a problem I’ve since resigned myself to by never shutting the damn thing down, unless in the event of a complete reboot of my computer. As far as browsing, I never noticed any problems, and I have no good way of knowing whether it’s my connection or the browser. In any case, I’m not leaving the ‘Fox any time soon, so the point is a little moot. I am glad it’s faster, though.

In that article though, there was a ton of other information that I had been entirely ignorant of, particularly all the crazy stuff going on at Mozilla Labs. I’m fairly familiar with the stuff that Google Labs puts out, because they always trumpet it from their homepage, which is my homepage, coincidentally (and has been since… god, I can’t even remember when!). I like that Mozilla has taken the cue, and set up their own “Labs” environment. I’m sure this was probably done with a fair amount of eye-rolling on the part of the developing community.

The nature of open source software means that Mozilla has been doing “labs”-type operations since they emerged from the ashes of the Netscape group in 1998-1999. The source code has always been available as nightly builds, and if you felt like it, I assume you could compile it yourself, and execute whatever was posted online. I’ve never done this, but that’s my understanding of how it functions, roughly, at least. Past that, you could say that the Mozilla people even further pioneered this idea with the addition of extensions within Firefox.

This fantastic move put a lot more control over the browser in the hands of third party developers, as well as the users themselves. The extensions [NOTE: They’ve since been re-named to Add-Ons, which has always irritated me, and I haven’t been able to break the habit of calling them extensions] are modular, in that you can have as many as you want, and they all play nice with each other in virtually any configuration. The downside is that there is no central development, and so sometimes extensions will just kindof die, even if they’re useful tools. Odds are though, that if they’re popular, they’ll continue to develop.

So, how funny, that in spite of these two huge developments, Mozilla, to compete with Google, has to spell out the ‘labs’ idea. As nearly as I can tell, Labs seems to be for things that are bigger than any mere extension (despite being installed the same way) but not big enough, important enough, or complete enough to merit integration within the mothership of a milestone Firefox release.

So what’s up at the labs, you might ask? Lets see! There are a lot of things to play around with, and what distinguishes this from Google Labs is that these are actually in-progress works. I’ve never used a Google Labs tool that broke or was ugly; Mozilla Labs has liberated me from such an unfortunate state. If it breaks, you know someday it’ll be better, which is frustrating and encouraging all in the same moment.

A synchronization tool, this allows you to get access to your Firefox ‘profile’ across machines. The coolest thing I saw was that you get access to your web history in the form of the smart-bar transferring with Weave, and you also get your tabs! So when I have a tab-collection open on one computer, I could get a public machine with Weave installed to essentially “take me home” as far as tabs goes. Neat! It also brings your bookmarks along for the ride…

Strangely, I don’t care. I haven’t used bookmarks in years, and vis a vis have probably given Google an extra thousand searches when in actuality I was just too lazy to try and remember the URL. On the other hand, I manually type “” when I want to know something about a THING, so. Whatever that means…

I haven’t actually started using Weave, because for the summer I’m confined to my laptop. I’ve never used the MacTop so intensively before, but she’s holding up quite well. I’ve also made some real pioneering leaps in terms of RSS feeds and e-mail portability, but I’ll get to that later. But yeah, I don’t want to build a Weave profile on my auxilary machine, and then push it to my primary, so that’ll have to wait.

This makes it even easier to program little mini-extensions for Firefox using web standards that more people are familiar with. I don’t fully understand it, but the tutorial makes it look pretty easy. Maybe they’ve finally dumbed it down enough that I could finally fulfill a lifelong ambition and contribute to the Mozilla community! I’ll probably play with it next week, and I’ll get back to you.

Cool as hell, but probably a little to futuristic for me at this point. Glad someone’s got the stones to take on such a project though.

I almost dismissed this as just a corollary to the Themes system set up by Firefox right now. I played with Themes when I first got the browser, many moons ago, but ultimately nothing’s quite as clean and seamless as the default. Plus I have it use the little buttons so I can get more screen space, and they’re so small I just want something that’s no-nonsense, form-over function, you know?

Boy am I glad I didn’t pass this one over! On a whim, I installed it, just to give it a go. Imagine my surprise when, as I was browsing the gallery, I slid my mouse over one of the previews, and instantly my browser responded by skinning with the theme, preceded by virtually no lag at all! This makes it so easy to try out anything, or everything, and just click when you find one you like!

Hopefully, as the community designing these ‘Personas’ grows, there’ll be even more designs to choose from.

Finally we arrive at the feature I was most excited for. I’ve really come to love Thunderbird, the red-headed stepchild of the Mozilla foundation. It doesn’t have the userbase, or the glamor of its older brother, but it tries hard. A lot of people at Truman are just kinda lazy, and use the crappy web-mail circa 1995 for all their e-mail needs. It’s not that it doesn’t work, it’s just clunky as hell. Couple that with my collective hard-on for all things Open Source, and you see why I’ve been using Thunderbird loyally since the summer of 2006.

Recently, Truman transitioned its e-mail service over to GMail. Despite my initial resistance, I’ve grown to like it. Part of why the transition period was so arduous was because, using the POP3 server, I’d been downloading copies of my e-mail to my harddrive, and then just blasting the copies on the server, since we were given such an abysmally small amount of storage. Now GMail comes strutting in, telling me I have 2.7 gigs of space, or something absurd like that.

Around this time, I also found out I’d be sans desktop for my time in Boston. I needed a solution to my e-mail problem fast. When the changeover day came, I began the slow process of pushing three YEARS worth of e-mail from my hard drive, back to the server, where there was now ample room. This took a long, long time, and suffered several restarts and slowdowns. The reason for this is I didn’t want to go the POP3 route anymore. I didn’t like that my primary e-mail machine was constantly at odds and out of sync with the server.

IMAP solves all this nicely. Thunderbird essentially transforms into a faceplate for accessing mail on the server-side. Any changes I make in GMail, for example, the numerous messages I’ve received and sent since coming to Boston, will be immediately and automatically reflected in my Thunderbird inbox when I return home. The setup works really nice, except Thunderbird is a lot slower now that it’s manipulating data server-side rather than locally on my harddisk. Mrh.

To compensate for that, I wanted to centralize my information more than I already had. I used to, for a while, use the open-source stand-alone calendar client, Sunbird. I’ve since fallen off using that tool, simply because I fail at keeping a decent calendar. I get lazy and stop adding things, game over. Last fall, Cody Sumter, god bless him, told me that you could get Google Calendar set up to send text-message reminders via SMS to your phone!

Having just become the proud-but-reluctant owner of an unlimited text-messaging plan, I figured this was the most dignified way to utilize it for the powers of good. Thus, began my foray into the land of Google Stuff, as opposed to just their search. Those reminders saved my ass countless times in keeping up with the battery of meetings and events I had to contend with last semester, and boy and I ever thankful! Recently I was able to integrate that Google Calendar pretty seamlessly into Mozilla’s Thunderbird-Extension Calendar application called ‘Lightning’. They sync well, and now I have got myself down to a single application again for both e-mail and calendar, and RSS.

However, after syndicating my RSS feeds through Thunderbird for almost a year though, I’ve run off with another woman. I made it maybe two weeks in Boston without my feeds. While IMAP ensures that my e-mail situation stays simple and synced, it is entirely ignorant of the RSS Feeds component of things. The only thing I could think to do was link Google Reader into the account with the rest of my Google Stuff, and get my information that way. Let me just say, it’s awesome.

As dumb of a complaint as it is, to handle each and every feed item as if it were a tiny e-mail is a really silly way to go about keeping tabs on a zillion things going on on the internet. Google reader just dumps them nicely in one giant pile, and there’s no clicking. You scroll; find something interesting? Stop. If you’re bored, or want to skip stuff, just keep scrolling. You can tag items, and then browse just by folder and all that, it’s fantastic: I’m a believer.

-Actual Discussion-
On the heels of that though, imagine my surprise when I see that labs is working on Snowl, an in-browser feed syndication app! I thought this was my chance to redeem myself, come crawling back to Mozilla, a crying, sobbing mess, promising to never leave her for Google and her short skirt ever again. This was… not the case.

Snowl, in a pre-release state, is rough as hell. The interface is awkward, it’s hard to actually manage subscriptions, many configurations are inoperative, and I simply can’t fathom the pedagogical differences in the List/Stream/River organizational schemes. I’m not being flippant, I just actually do not get it. There is also the idea that eventually you’ll route all your e-mail, RSS and social networking stuff to the same place… OK?

Immediately I think of the word “clusterf-” oh whatever. You get the idea. I feel bad, the poor little thing doesn’t seem to have a sense of direction… and yet… it has, in the course of two days, become indispensable to me. Huh?! “But Tom, it’s so crappy, you said!” Yeah, Snowl is for sure in the pre-release stage, and so it’s supposed to be rough. Even when it gets further along, I’m not sure I buy that it’s the silver-bullet for getting all you messaging needs in one place.

But it did outstrip Google Reader in one category, and that’s gotta count for something, right? I’ve always had trouble aggregating news-oriented feeds. My Thunderbird solution was to route the domestic news of the New York Times into a folder with the international news of the BBC. Daily, this folder would stack up 30-50 new news items. Burdensome as this was, I set a limiter on the folder that only the most recent 25 items should be kept, and throw everything else out. That way, when I wanted to check news, I only had to content with the recent updates.

Little by little though, isolating these updates in their own folder, and with as busy as I get, I quickly stopped reading them. Bad as I felt, there just wasn’t time to put up the daily struggle with making sure I had kept up with all that information. Even in Google Reader, this problem persists. Even with Google’s super-fast skim-and-it’s-marked-as-read technique, perfect for the 5-7 webcomics that I read per day, that’s not easy enough to get through 50 news items a day.

Snowl has this mode called “Stream,” which I’m absolutely smitten with. It’s a pane that pops up on the left side of the browser, and it is a list of the source and headline of every item in your collective news feeds, in aggregate. This irritated me at first, making it hard to find all my comics in the monsoon of news. Then, it dawned on me. The big-list-of-headlines is perfect as a sortof customized news ticker… and Google Reader’s very clean, image-friendly interface is perfect for comics!

And the rest was history. I deleted all my news from Reader, and all my comics from Snowl, and never the two shall meet again. While I’m typing an e-mail, or watching Gundam stuff on YouTube, or blogging, my eyes constantly flit to the left, seeing if there’s anything interesting. Already, this has served me incredibly well. I sat down after lunch, and saw, a mere hour or two after it happened, that Sarah Palin had resigned! Normally, I wouldn’t’ve heard that for a few days, or until I manually pulled up one of the news sites.

Now, I basically have the ultimate feed aggregation system. If Snowl could be configured such that the news pane would function more like a ticker, I might just wet myself with joy, because that’s what I’m really going for here.

A View of Google Reader, listing webcomics, Kate Beaton featured, and Snowl listing news.

That said, this post ballooned into way more than I intended for it. Sorry for the big ol’ history on my technology situation. I’m just really particular about this stuff, and even if none of you care, it’ll be fun for me to read this in 10 years when kids haven’t even heard of “Facebook” or “RSS”.